The Conservation of African Penguins

African Penguin_©PeterChadwick_AfricanConservationPhotographer

The African Penguin is the only penguin species to breed on African shores, mostly breeding on the scattered offshore islands of South Africa and Namibia and there are also two main-land breeding colonies at Boulders Beach in Simonstown and at Stony Point at Bettys Bay. Today the population stands at around 40 000 birds and populations are still sadly decreasing with the bird now been listed within the Red Data Book as endangered.

The current population decline has been attributed primarily to a lack of food. The penguins forage for small pelagic fish in inshore waters that are usually within 15 kms of the coast. On occasion, they will travel up to 50 kms away from colonies when breeding and may travel up to 400 kms away out of the breeding season. They breed colonially and year round, though there is a winter peak with a usual clutch of two eggs being laid.

African Penguin_©PeterChadwick_AfricanConservationPhotographer

First known to the western world over 500 years ago, the African Penguin was a common species. With the arrival of Bartholemeu Diaz in 1487, the penguin became a ready source of meat and eggs for ships larders. The carcasses were also rendered down for both fat and as fuel for ships boilers. In the 1840s, the South African guano rush started. The seabird droppings were known as “white gold” and this was scrapped from all the breeding islands to be transformed into nutrient rich agricultural fertilizer. This stripping of the guano left bare rock behind and stripped the islands of suitable nesting sites for the penguins. It was these harvests that left the biggest negative impacts on the African Penguins. Then at the beginning of the 20th centaury, another threat developed with the wholesale collection of penguin eggs for museum collections and for food. The eggs were initially collected as a cheap source of protein for the poor and over time as the eggs became increasingly scarce they became a luxury food.

African Penguin_©PeterChadwick_AfricanConservationPhotographer

Today, egg collection and guano harvesting is illegal and the largest threats facing the penguins are the overharvesting of small pelagic fish which is their main food source. With South Africa also lying on one of the worlds major shipping lanes, the birds are also at high risk to oil pollution. In June 2000, the bulk oil carrier MV Treasure ran aground between Robben and Dassen Islands. 20 000 African Penguins were oiled in this disaster. Intensive efforts are now thankfully underway to conserve this endemic species.

African Penguin_©PeterChadwick_AfricanConservationPhotographer